A lifetime ago, on July 14 we walked from Irun on the first day of our intended journey along the Camino del Norte. Of the approximately 800 or so fellow pilgrims setting out on the Camino Santiago on the same day, 700 would have been starting somewhere on the Camino Frances and the rest of us were scattered over the other dozen or so routes. About 30 started the day on the Norte.
We started early on that first day with the temperatures rising from the early 20s to the mid 30s by the early afternoon. After a gentle start, the path climbed and dipped alarmingly. I sweated. I swore. I rued my lack of preparation. We climbed through a forest and down through a fishing village of simply ridiculous quaintness. We stopped for food and (bad idea) beer and caught a tiny ferry across an inlet and climbed a set of steps. Then a hill. Then another one. And another. The path underfoot was concrete and was casting back almost as much heat as the sun overhead. Around 1 pm I staggered into the shade of a tree and stopped, knowing that nothing but nothing could shift me from that tiny dark oasis of almost cool. And then I threw up. It was an Olympic gold medal display of power expulsion, a physical emptying of my self and a harbinger of the emptying on all other levels that his camino was to become. And much improved by my relinquishing I picked myself up and walked on up the hill. As you do.
The Camino Frances proceeds mostly through impoverished rural Spain while the Norte, for the most part is through affluent Coastal Spain. Over the next ten days or so the path moved from town to town along a stunning coastline of beaches and coves and bays. The Bay of Biscao is an accessible playground for much of Southern Europe so the seaside towns and cities were full and well groomed and pricy. And paved. We ventured into the hills and forests and walked a few soft tracks but mostly we walked on concrete. After about 400 km of it Clemency's ankles began to give out. We changed her shoes which was helpful and we changed track.
The Norte is very developed. The old villages have been restored and the small holdings have been generally carved up into upmarket subdivisions. Even walking the cliff tops above the gorgeous beaches we were usually in sight of some large town or other. And in the hills the native forests of oak and sweet chestnut have long gone, being replaced by more profitable eucalyptus or pine. At Sebrayo we made the decision to turn left and follow the Camino Pimitivo through the Pico Europa. A little further on, at Oviedo, Clemency caught the bus to Lugo to rest her ankles.
So for eight days I walked alone across about 200 km of villages and forests and mountains. It was an experience of aloneness that was as deep and rich as my recent silent retreat at Snowmass. Few enough people walk the Primitivo and most of those who walked with me were Spaniards or Italians. Although many pilgrims had a smattering of English and I have a few words of Spanish, I met not one native English speaker. There were a one or two pilgrims in their 40s or 50s but almost everyone was in their 20s or 30s. Everyone was friendly and inclusive but separated by age and language I generally walked and ate alone. I kept company with a small group of Hungarians, one of whom spoke some English. I was alone but not for one second was I lonely.
This struck me with some force at 6 one morning when I was walking alone in the pitch dark in the middle of a thick and tangled forest and suddenly realized how ludicrously happy I was to be there. Three times in the very early morning I faced down large farm dogs on the loose and vigorously defending their respective patches. Apart from the initial startle of an unexpected bark close at hand in the half light I can't say I felt vulnerable. Mind you a couple of well placed bastones (walking sticks) were pretty helpful.
The Primitivo was tough. I climbed to about 1200 metres with steep ascents and descents most days. My girth shrank. My strength increased. And the path faced me with my limits and in the dark quiet spaces of myself, unaided by words or images, much was resolved and set to rights. Then, one day after a 39km walk I climbed a hill into the Roman city of Lugo and was reunited with Clemency. The Primitivo had done it's work with me, and in some deep place it seemed that my Camino was now complete. But there was one last, pleasant stage to follow.
Over 5 days I walked to Santiago with the one who has shared my life for over 40 years. It was an unhurried ramble through 100 km of the Galician countryside with the person who knows and understands me best in the world. We talked. We laughed a lot. We slept in some fairly memorable albergues. And yesterday we walked in the rain into this holy centre of La España Bonita. For me it was anticlimactic. The height of my pilgrimage - physically, emotionally and spiritually- was at the top of the Hospitales route on the Camino Primitivo, and yet I still wept to see the towers of the Cathedral rising above the shops on my left.
Last night we had a meal with our dear friend Catherine (that's French Catherine as opposed to American Catherine or daughter Catherine) with whom we had walked and connected at depth. We sat at a full table of new friends, drank good deep rich fruity Spanish wine and ate things we would never even try at home. We listened to Galician folk songs and an incomprehensible Galician play. Then went to bed to process this, one of the greatest experiences of both our lives.
I can never hope to explain what this encounter with the path of miracles has wrought in me. Over the next few weeks though I will post a few things which perhaps might give a taste of it.